Pilot Projects to Aim at Workforce Issues

By Linda Jacobson — October 30, 2008 5 min read
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Three states have agreed to take part in a high-profile commission’s effort to create pilot programs aimed at creating new approaches to public education that would help keep the United States internationally competitive.

Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Utah are the first states to form partnerships with the Washington-based New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which will fund projects based on the recommendations in its 2006 report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times.”

The Oct. 30 announcement is the first tangible effort to implement some of the actions recommended by the document, which called for a bold redesign of the nation’s education and training systems. (“U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

The report built on the work of the first commission, which released a 1990 report warning that low-skills jobs would migrate to countries where corporations could pay the least for labor. Only countries with highly skilled workers would be able to compete in the new global economy.

The pilot programs—the details of which would be worked out by the states over the next year or so—could include such efforts as allowing students to enter community colleges as early as 16 and recruiting top college graduates to enter the teaching profession.

“When we put this report together, it was based on what we had seen in the highest-performing countries” such as Singapore, Marc S. Tucker, the co-chairman of implementation for the commission, and the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said in an interview. “We put together a report that was intended to create a new kind of conversation.”

At the Oct. 30 event in Washington announcing the partnerships, Lyonel B. Tracy, New Hampshire’s commissioner of education, called the NCEE’s report and redesign framework a “prelude to rewriting the No Child Left Behind [Act] and getting it right this time.”

Since the release of the report, the NCEE has been working with about a dozen interested states.

As a result of the commission’s visits and meetings in the states over the past 18 months, four or five additional states are expected to announce their participation in the initiative in December, Mr. Tucker said.

Mr. Tucker said the goal is to work with governors, education officials, business leaders, lawmakers, and teachers’ union officials to build support for efforts that will outlast the terms of current elected officials in those states.

“Our view is that this is not a sprint; this is a long-distance run,” he said, adding that it would probably take 10 to 15 years to completely phase in the agenda.

‘Look at Our Systems’

The 2006 report—the work of a panel that included former U.S. Cabinet secretaries, former governors, state and local superintendents, and business executives—recommended broad reforms that many observers agreed with but thought unrealistic.

Some of the recommendations were greeted as radical or far-fetched by some education professionals, such as having teachers hired by states instead of districts, schools funded at the state and not the local level, schools run by teachers as independent contractors, and 16-year-olds enrolling in community or technical colleges after passing “board exams.”

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers praised the recommendation to significantly raise teacher salaries in order to lure young people into the profession, but criticized the suggestion that those higher salaries should be paid for by weakening teachers’ benefit packages.

Other critics said it would be wrong to remove local control from public education.

Nevertheless, the report resonated with elected leaders and education officials in some states.

“We’ve embraced the concept of the report that probably patching [the education system] here and there is not going to make a big difference,” said Gayle McKeachnie, an adviser to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican. “We have to look at our systems.”

For example, Mr. McKeachnie said, high schools have a “crying need” for counselors to help students make choices about college or work after they graduate. The state’s workforce services department, meanwhile, has teams of people who “know where the jobs are, what kind of education you need, and how much you get paid,” he said. “Why aren’t we using that resource in our schools?”

In New Hampshire, officials will begin developing a state board examination system to make sure students are ready for community college by the end of 10th grade without the need for remedial instruction. Students who pass those exams could earn a two-year degree while completing their high school diploma at the same time. They could also stay in high school and continue to prepare for the more-rigorous admission standards of selective four-year universities.

And in Massachusetts, where the NCEE’s goals are consistent with the objectives of a preschool-through-post-higher-education plan proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, officials plan to launch a “statewide master teacher contract” that would include a new compensation and benefit structure.

Union Support

While cautious, the 3.2 million-member NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, generally is encouraging state affiliates to be open-minded about the proposals.

“NEA strongly believes that major changes will be needed in the design of our public school system if this country is to match the performance of the countries that do the best job of preparing their students for the demands of the new century,” NEA Executive Director John I. Wilson wrote in a Sept. 30 letter to Mr. Tucker.

Mr. Wilson said that while the union doesn’t endorse all of the commission’s recommendations, “we have decided that we will support any state affiliate of the NEA that decides to join their governor, chief state school officer, and others” in working to implement the commission’s recommendations.

Under the structure envisioned by the commission, unions would still have a very significant role, but would negotiate contracts at the state level, Mr. Tucker said. They would also become “enormous sources of continuing education and training,” he said,

Participating states also will be looking to the NCEE for technical and financial assistance to begin their projects at a time when many are facing tight budgets. The NCEE has committed $1.8 million for the effort’s first year and is seeking foundation support in order to keep up that level of funding in subsequent years.

Mr. McKeachnie said responsibility for realizing the report’s goals extends far beyond schools to higher education, the business community, and the legislature.

“We’ve made an effort to not say our schools are failing, and blame it on the schools,” he said, “because there is enough blame to go around.”

Education Week Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Pilot Projects to Aim at Workforce Issues


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